After riots at the US Capitol by President Donald Trump’s supporters, the Republican Party is facing defections from two camps of voters it can not afford to lose: those saying Mr Trump and his allies went too far in contesting the election of Democrat Joe Biden – and those saying they did not go far enough, according to new polling and interviews with two dozen voters.
Paul Foster – a 65-year-old house painter in Ellsworth, Maine – is furious at party leaders for refusing to back the president's claims that the election was stolen with millions of fraudulent votes. "The party is going to be totally broken" if it abandons Mr Trump, Mr Foster said, predicting President Trump's loyalists will spin off into a new, third party.
Marc Cupelo, a retired business consultant in Syracuse, New York, could not feel more differently. A lifelong Republican, he regretted voting for Mr Trump as he watched the president’s backers storm the Capitol last Wednesday, inspired by Mr Trump’s fiery rhetoric and false election-fraud claims. Now he wants the party to banish Mr Trump and carve out a less-divisive future, free of the “twisted values” held by some Trump supporters.
“I just wish he would run away with his tail between his legs,” Mr Cupelo said.
The opposing views of Mr Cupelo and Mr Foster capture the crucible in which Republican leaders find themselves. With Democrat Joe Biden now set to take office on January 20, the future of the so-called Grand Old Party, or GOP, is racked with uncertainty and intra-party division not seen since the aftermath of the Watergate scandal that drove president Richard Nixon from the White House nearly half a century ago.
And the choice confronting party leaders as they ponder a renewed impeachment effort – whether to continue backing Mr Trump or make him a pariah – will almost certainly cost the party voters it needs to win future elections, Republican Party officials and strategists said.
Although Republicans have now lost control of the White House and both Houses of Congress in barely four years, Mr Trump's base remains a potent electoral force in the party. That base helped him to capture more voters – about 74 million – than any Republican in history. The vast majority of his supporters, including 70 per cent of Republicans, remain loyal, according to new Reuters/Ipsos polling conducted days after last week's riot at the Capitol, and many activists say they are willing to abandon the GOP for any perceived slight against their leader.
Yet Mr Trump’s ability to attract support is surpassed only by his ability to drive it away: Mr Biden won more voters than any presidential candidate in history, capturing more than 81 million votes, including the bulk of self-described independents and a small but significant number of disaffected Republicans, according to exit polls by Edison Research. Many of those voters – and more repelled by the Capitol violence – are adamant that they will never support a party that remains tethered to Mr Trump.
Longtime Republican strategist Matt Mackowiak said the dilemma revolves around a central question – “We can't win without Trump's base; the question is, can we hold on to Trump's base without Trump?"
The loss of support – from Republicans who love Mr Trump and those who despise him – represents a crisis for a party already struggling to cobble together a winning national coalition.
Support among Republicans appears to be eroding, and the trend has accelerated since last week’s riot at the Capitol and amid a new impeachment effort – the second of his term – accusing him of inciting the mob violence. The House of Representatives voted on Wednesday to impeach Mr Trump, setting the stage for a trial in the Senate, possibly after he leaves office. If he were convicted, even after stepping down, it is possible senators could vote to bar him for life from holding federal office.
Mr Trump's support among self-identified Republicans fell to 70 per cent in the new Reuters/Ipsos polling, conducted between January 8 and 12 following the Capitol riot, down from a peak of 88 per cent in mid-August. That is the lowest level of his presidency. His approval also sank to only 34 per cent among all Americans, the lowest since December 2017, after he signalled support for far-right extremists at a deadly rally in Virginia.
The Capitol riot was the last straw for Jack Drago, 80, a retired service engineer for Chrysler who lives in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley.
Mr Drago voted for Mr Trump because he disliked Mr Biden's support of abortion rights and worried that the Democratic Party's progressive wing would push the country towards big-government socialism. But he was appalled by Mr Trump's conduct and polarising language since the election and holds him responsible for the Capitol attack. He called the Trump backers who carried it out as "clowns" and "radicals".
"If the Republicans said to Trump: 'We'll impeach you,' they'd hit a home run," Mr Drago said.
Ten Republicans in the House of Representatives voted to impeach Trump on Wednesday.
Loyalists stand with Trump
For now, however, Republican voters such as Mr Drago remain more the exception than the rule.
In the days before the Capitol riot, Reuters/Ipsos polling showed that Mr Trump’s repeated assertions of election fraud were catching on: About 65 per cent of Republicans felt Mr Biden’s election victory was the result of illegal votes and election-rigging. That was up from 59 per cent who said so in a November 13-17 poll shortly after the election.